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Success has many fathers and failure is an orphan. But the latest grotesque mass shooting – during which a man killed thirteen people in Binghamton, New York – provoked a rash of conflicting attempts to assign a motive for the gunman’s mad acts. Shortly after the violence became known, a Taliban sheikh in Islamabad, Pakistan claimed responsibility for the attack. But since the gunman – Jiverly Wong – was a Vietnamese-American who lived with his parents outside Binghamton, the skeikh’s claim smacks of mere jihadist opportunism.
The conspiracy-minded may sense the heavy hand of Dick Cheney behind the Taliban cleric’s claim, since Cheney recently warned that President Obama’s policies were making the county less safe. No doubt it is far-fetched to believe Cheney would employ a sheikh to mastermind a terrorist attack in order to vindicate Cheney’s dire predictions, not to mention the immoral, unconstitutional practices he embraced during the Bush era. And that would allow Cheney to blame Obama.
Binghamton Police Chief Joseph Zikuski said Wong might have been depressed because other students in his English class at the immigration center he attacked had mocked his poor language skills. Perhaps his teacher is culpable for failing to raise Wong’s fluency level. The bullies among his classmates merit blame, but they might merely have been attempting to acculturate more rapidly. The students must have noticed that ridiculing anyone slightly different from mainstream bland is as American as chop suey.
Some liberals said Wong probably suffered from the prejudice of American racists against new immigrants. Some racists blamed immigrant culture itself (them pesky non-white fureigners) and the policies which allow disturbed or unstable individuals from other countries to compete with the disturbed and unstable native born.
Gun opponents blame the killing spree on the gun culture, of which Wong was an avid member. Second Amendment absolutists accuse the Obama regime of threatening to take away their cherished weaponry, though no such policy has been declared. Out of fear that new, more restrictive gun regulations might someday possibly be imposed under Obama, there has been a huge recent upsurge in applications for background checks to purchase more firearms. The NRA used to flaunt the bumpersticker: “When Guns are Outlawed, Only Outlaws will have Guns.” They could amend that to read “Since Guns are Legal, Only Paranoids Hoard Guns.”
Given the recent epidemic of mass murder, with so many unbalanced individuals turning weapons on relatives and strangers alike, it is hard to understand what a “background check” actually uncovers. The week of the Binghamton shootings, a man murdered five members of his family. In March an Alabama gunner killed eleven. Last Christmas Eve in Los Angeles a lunatic dressed as Santa shot nine people and himself to death. The April 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, in which 33 people died, still holds the modern record. We can only hope no one will try to break it. This is not a category The Guinness Book wants to acknowledge.
Many officials and pundits attribute this latest rise in rampage killing to the economic downturn. Wong had recently lost his job at Shop-Vac, which manufactures vacuum cleaners. You could blame Wong’s boss for giving him the boot, but even more, his former co-workers, who showed no surprise at Wong’s wanton madness. They had even joked among themselves about how he might someday show up at work with a weapon and shoot up the place. Ha. Do greedy bankers and hedge fund managers deserve the blame for Wong running amok? Yes and no but no…
Not long ago Wong’s wife left with their children, apparently adding to his embitterment. Perhaps the heartbreak of his wife’s departure pushed him over the edge. Maybe she realized she had to get away before he murdered his family. In a soon-to-be-posthumous letter to a local TV station, Wong himself blamed police harassment. Or as Wong put it: “Because undercover cop gave me a lot of ass during eighteen years.”
The potential list of contributing culprits to this senseless horror is ample, even if tangential and contradictory. In Rashomon, the classic Japanese story made into a film by Akira Kurosawa in the 1950s, each person involved in a crime conveys their very different versions of the incident. Even the dead murder victim testifies through a medium at a courtroom séance to offer his take. If we could contact Jiverly Wong through a spirit medium, he might be angry that others appear to share any responsibility for the act he alone committed.
Suicidal killing sprees are desperate outbursts against feelings of impotence that corner the killer. A murderous rampage is a final, irrational attempt to be taken seriously. Jiverly Wong wanted to make a statement in the worst possible way. And so he did. The pain he inflicted will linger long in many lives, but he himself will soon be forgotten. Who can name the Virginia Tech gunman?
Victims of the American social experiment who go down shooting are doomed to justifiable obscurity. They are but symptoms and statistics and by now, cliches. But their enablers and accomplices – human and systemic – remain among us. That is why we tend to look beyond the crazed shooters, to identify the people and problems that poisoned their brains. So they don’t poison ours.
JAMES McENTEER is the author of Shooting the Truth: the Rise of American Political Documentaries (Praeger 2006). He lives in Cochabamba, Bolivia.